What’s old is new again. The gleaming white Houston Endowment headquarters building, designed by Kevin Daly Architects of Los Angeles with PRODUCTORA from Mexico City, is a temple on a hill. Occupying a choice location on a bluff overlooking Buffalo Bayou, the architecturally ambitious Houston Endowment building is sited like a parameterized Mount Vernon. The Houston Endowment is a nonprofit philanthropic organization established in 1937 by Jesse Jones, Houston’s first major commercial real estate developer, which both gives grants to organizations that enhance public life and preserves his assets from taxation. The Houston Endowment’s previous headquarters was in a downtown skyscraper, and the organization desired a freestanding building to present a public face and sense of civic presence.
The architects created a relatively solid elevation facing the street. Instead, facing the bayou, whose slow waters wind through the bucolic scene, the building’s carefully sculpted frontispiece is surmounted by an overhead sunshade supported by a row of thin steel columns. This elevation is composed of terraced volumes, interspersed with outdoor patio spaces on the ground and upper floors. The exterior walls have a rainscreen cladding made of pressed aluminum panels. The panels have a strongly scalloped profile and appear like the fragments of oversize, fluted Doric column drums piled up on an archaeological site. At 32,000 square feet on just two floors, the building is not large, but its scale is ambiguous owing to the repetitive, undulating facades. The effect is intriguing, and, like many contemporary buildings featuring idiosyncratic design elements, it looks like a computer rendering come to life. The straightforward interiors, pleasantly illuminated with abundant daylight, are otherwise typical of what one would expect for a tastefully appointed corporate office space. This building, like an ancient Greek temple, is all about the exterior. It will no doubt win recognition in design awards programs.
The Spanish moss draped on the nearby trees and the nearly blinding whiteness of the columned building conjure highly specific feelings of the “Old South.” The landscaping gabions at the foot of the loggia recall, with a bit of imagination, the stony Acropolis of Pericles. However, in public presentations and the articles already written about it, there is no suggestion of the design’s potent historical and symbolic allusions. Instead, we are proffered a lot of earnest, “functional” explanations of its climatic responsiveness, energy efficiency, and economy. While visiting, I was so struck by the building’s allusive power, however, that I felt compelled to examine what it could mean to produce such an effect.
In the early postwar years, influential architectural historian Vincent Scully began to analyze the peculiar return of frankly classicizing elements in modern American architecture. In “Archetype and Order in Recent American Architecture,” an article published in Art in America in December 1954, he described a trend toward “order and clarity in design … along with these have come precise pavilions, defined by the metrical beat of high colonnades … in which the overall spanning structure is essentially unified and cellular … Yet so earnestly does it seek for integrity and order in the parts and the whole that one is tempted to call it truly ‘classic’ in its aspirations.” In an essay written for the British publication Architectural Review in March 1960, another American architectural historian, William Jordy, coined the term “New Formalism” to describe what could by then be considered a recognizable style. During the 1960s, “critical” topics like history and symbolism, along with the qualitative criteria of beauty and elegance, were employed to explain works of modern architecture. Each “classic” pavilion produced by major and minor American architects implicitly rebuked the avant-garde, socially oriented version of modern architecture—that of Bauhaus functionalism—for its failure to recondition a culture emotionally battered by the crisis of economic depression and world war. Instead of seeking to subvert the postwar status quo, these new arrière-garde buildings invoked the classical past of the Western world to support the privileged positions of the power elite who commissioned them.
In Houston, the colonnade parade began with the master plan for the University of St. Thomas (1957), designed by Philip Johnson, which used a continuous two-story, steel-framed portico to organize the academic buildings. As the architect himself cheekily observed, he borrowed the concept from Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical design of the campus and buildings of the University of Virginia (1817). New Formalism’s apotheosis in Houston was surely the Astrodome (1965), designed by Lloyd & Morgan and Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson. Its uninterrupted exterior elevation, ringed with large but dainty pilasters, appeared like a massively distended Temple of Vesta by way of Brasília. Inside, directly inspired by the Colosseum, it was fully climate-controlled, an electrically illuminated bread and circuses wonderland for postwar America. In a provocative essay published in July 1970 in Architectural Design, architect and critic Peter Papademetriou went so far as to compare the Astrodome and its adjacent amusement park, AstroWorld, only half-jokingly, to the urban interventions of Pope Sixtus V (1521–90) in Renaissance Rome.
It is intriguing now to see how a neo–New Formalism has been subtly guiding Houston’s architecture scene at its most sophisticated levels. The Menil Collection building (1987), designed by Renzo Piano with Richard Fitzgerald & Associates, anticipated the trend and informed the projects that followed. The museum is distinguished by its clearly expressed modular structural system, which controls the plan and elevations. An intricate but visually quiet roof structure made of ferro-concrete and glass and supported by white-painted steel columns filters light to the art galleries inside. When the design was first presented, some critics wondered whether its overscale “front porch” facade was too understated for Houston’s ultimate prestige building, especially when contrasted with Piano’s flashy, high-tech work in Europe like the Centre Pompidou (1977), designed with Richard Rogers, which gives the appearance of a glass-encased oil refinery. Shortly after came the even quieter, solemn, and symmetrical Cy Twombly Gallery (1995), designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Richard Fitzgerald & Associates. In 2009 the Brochstein Pavilion, designed by New York architects Thomas Phifer & Partners, appeared on the Rice University campus. Its four identical elevations evoke a modern Villa Rotunda, but here they’re made of glass sheets held together with a fantasy of white-painted steel structural elements. The building, which hovers on a tiny knoll amid a sea of orange brick, caused a sensation among both the architecture community and the general public. It was soon followed by James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany skyspace (2012), designed with Thomas Phifer & Partners. This mysterious mastaba-like art installation, partly encased with earth, was built on a grand axis with the Brochstein Pavilion (and the school’s original Lovett Hall) in an underdeveloped section of the campus. A grand photo op as much as a mystical communion with the heavens, it quickly became a popular destination.
Joining the Houston Endowment building is the nearby Ismaili Center, designed by London architect Farshid Moussavi and currently under construction. The publicly released renderings show it with verandas supported by slender columns facing different directions, recalling the Erechtheion. The glowing pale stone grilles on the exterior walls appear as an updated version of the pierced terrazzo screens that Edward Durrell Stone wrapped around his U.S. Embassy building (1958) in New Delhi.
It appears we live in a paralyzing cycle of constant crises—political, cultural, economic, environmental—each seemingly worse than the one before, thanks in part to the amplifying powers of modern media. Yet despite all this tumult, the powerful elites maintain their elevated status. The Bauhaus avant-garde proposed a new world, which it failed to deliver. And this failure makes one wonder whether architecture, beholden to so many external factors, could ever have the power to effect such sweeping change. The new Houston Endowment headquarters, along with its predecessors, suggests that there isn’t much appetite for revolution. At least the results ain’t bad to look at.
Ben Koush is an architect and writer in Houston.
- Architect: Kevin Daly Architects, PRODUCTORA
- Location: Houston
- General contractor: W. S. Bellows
- Civil engineer: BGE
- Structural engineer: Arup Texas
- Landscape: Tom Leader Studio
- Envelope consultant: CDC
- Sustainability consultant: Transsolar
- Custom facade fabrication: Kinetica